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Rulebook: 20/20 Hindsight – A Look Back at the First Year of the “New Rules”

by Rich McLean, Golf Canada Rules Official (@LobWedge)

There was some rumbling, shaking and yelling. It was all too fast. We didn’t understand. But in the end, nothing blew up, nothing collapsed, nothing spontaneously ignited. We’re all still here. We’ve survived a whole year of the 2019 “New Rules”. Let’s see how we (and they) did.

Actually, 2019 did start with a bit of a bang. January 1st, the new rules code dropped, and January 3rd they were put into very public practice at the PGA Tour Sentry Tournament of Champions. It was for most, their first exposure to new terms like “Penalty Area” and “Temporary Water”. Putting with the flagstick in the hole? What?? We also learned, and debated at length about what a caddie could, and couldn’t do. We also listened to TV announcers wrestle with these same things, live on-air, while many of us longed for “the good old days” when the rules were easier to understand. “Get off my lawn!”, we cried.

Fast-forward 365 days or so, and we can look back and smile, roll our eyes, and wonder what all the fuss was about. We ripped off the Band-Aid. Sure, it stung at first, but the pain is now long gone, and the scars have mostly healed.

Sure, there have been growing pains, and there are still questions. That’s the great thing about golf though, it’s never exactly the same game twice. That’s why the rules are constantly adjusting to each slight movement, ever-so-slowly-yet-steadily, like tectonic plates. As in previous codes, the rules truly work when they are viewed as a living document. The main examples of this are through the Interpretations and quarterly Clarifications. Always under review, the rules settle in, and spread out to take in as much as possible so that we can arrive at the fairest answers.

A great example of an Interpretation in today’s rules is under the term “Lost”, named Lost/3. This one helps us bridge the gap between the three minutes allowed to search for a ball and the player’s ability to return to the spot of their previous stroke and play a provisional ball. What it tells us is that the clock continues to run while the player is going back to play that provisional. That’s what Interpretations do. They help us drill down a bit further in the language of the definitions and rules, to make the picture clearer.

Speaking of clearer, we also have Clarifications. These take us a bit deeper into interpreting the meaning, or intent, of the operation of a particular rule. A prime example of this is the recent clarification regarding Rule 15.3 and the practice known as “backstopping”. Being quite difficult to prove a player’s intent without actually having hard evidence of wrongdoing (remember, the rules always assume that we are proceeding with honour), this clarification reminds us of the concept of “best practice”, or what my old granddad used to call common sense, when marking or leaving one’s ball in place on the putting green. It’s a gentle nudge reminding us of the consequences of such actions, not an accusation.